Sea silk (known also as byssus) is a type of fabric. Whilst silk is famously known to be obtained from the cocoons of the mulberry silkworm larvae, sea silk comes from another source. As its name suggests, sea silk is produced by a marine creature, a type of Mediterranean clam known as pen shells, to be more specific. Like silk, sea silk is also a luxury product, perhaps even more so. One reason for this is that whilst silk is today produced on an industrial scale, sea silk is a dying art. It has been reported that currently, there is only one person in the world who has mastered this ancient tradition.
Pinna nobilis shell and byssus or sea silk ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The production of sea silk is a tradition said to date back to ancient times. To produce this luxurious item, one would first need to harvest the byssus (a bundle of filaments secreted by certain species of bivalves to attach themselves to a solid surface) of the pen shell (in particular, Pinna nobilis , commonly known as ‘noble pen shell’). The byssus then needs to be treated and spun into threads before it can be used for weaving or embroidery. The final result is a material that glistens in the sunlight like gold. This gold-like aspect of sea silk is one of the factors contributing to its popularity amongst the rich and powerful of the ancient world. It may be added that sea silk is also valued for its extremely light nature.
Material produced from sea silk by Chiara Vigo ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Sea silk is said to have been valued by many ancient cultures. The kings of Mesopotamia, for example, are said to have had garments of sea silk made for them. It has also been claimed that sea silk was known to the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. Moreover, this material may have been mentioned in ancient texts. It has been pointed out, for instance, that in the Old Testament, the word ‘byssus’ appears as many as 45 times. Nevertheless, in some instances, the ‘byssus’ is almost certainly a reference to other types of fabric, for example, cotton, linen, or silk. It has also been suggested that some objects from mythology may actually be sea silk. This, for instance, is an interpretation of the Golden Fleece found in the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts.
The Golden Fleece by Herbert James Draper, 1864-1920 ( Public Domain )
Returning to modern times, it may be said that the ancient tradition of producing sea silk is almost lost. On the island of Sardinia, a woman by the name of Chiara Vigo is keeping the tradition of sea silk alive. Whilst there are still several women in Apulia reputed to have the knowledge of weaving sea silk, it has been claimed that none of them harvest the raw materials themselves, and that none of them are able to produce fabrics that match the quality of Vigo’s products.
Chiara Vigo, last master of sea silk manufacture, weaving with sea silk (Guilio Gigante CC BY-SA 2.0 )
According to Vigo, the knowledge of sea silk production was brought to Sardinia by Berenice of Cilicia, a member of the Herodian Dynasty, and a great-granddaughter of its founder, Herod the Great. This skill was traditionally handed down from one generation to the next by the women of the family. Vigo, for instance, was taught the art of producing sea silk by her grandmother. Whilst sea silk was produced in the past for the rich and powerful, Vigo weaves this fabric mainly for outcasts, the poor, and the needy. Furthermore, the sea silk made by Vigo is not for sale. It has been reported that in the past, some sea silk weavers have attempted to make a business out of their skill, and to manufacture sea silk on an industrial basis. Such attempts, however, have never succeeded.
Stocking made of sea silk (byssus) from Pinna nobilis, 1765-1800 AD, in the Naturhistorisches Museum, Braunschweig, Germany. ( Public Domain )